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My hands hung casually from my jeans pockets as I debated toppling an empire. A small empire, sure—an empire of gaudy stockings and fat-faced Santas—an empire of plastic lights—but an empire, and every empire means something to somebody. Even plastic ones.
Glittery cloth swathed the fountain’s base, covering a blasphemous scene of Adam and Eve, where Adam eats the apple first and God becomes the snake. Tinsel hung where the stone trees should've been, windswept and lovingly-carved. Each ledge was strung with more of the stuff, as if the decorators couldn’t bear to look as the snake swallowed itself, head to tail, encircling the entire fountain. Although the gurgle of water could still be heard beneath the garnish, the sound was muffled. Indistinct, it mumbled as if speaking around the gag in its mouth.
I stumbled as a boy bumped into my knees. His mother apologized, shifted her bags to her other arm, and scurried off. The boy looked back over his shoulder. He heard it too.
“Whatcha lookin’ at?”
Goose bumps rose on my skin as a cold hand fell on my shoulder. I startled and peered up—way up, her boot heels impossibly high—into a thin, birdlike face.
Her gum popped. Her eyelashes—wreathed as heavily in mascara as the fountain was in decorations—dipped sleepily. “I said, whatcha lookin’ at?”
“That, I guess.”
“You guess? Don’t you know?”
“I know.” I shrugged off her hand but there it was again, oddly chill. Her fingernail polish sparkled in the dull lights of the dull mall, but somehow, the color mocked rather than celebrated. Where the tinsel reflected light like pieces of the Sun, her nails and neon glittered hair reflected a darker message. She was bright, from her white smile to her pink fishnet, but darker than the moms hurrying by in t-shirts.
“Stop,” I said.
“Asking questions?” She thought about it. “That was a question, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. No—” I pressed my lips tight. She could keep her blueberry-bright gum to herself.
Our shoulders brushed lightly as we stood there, swaying slightly on our feet as if invisible phantom fingers urged us closer. She turned to watch the tinsel rustle as people walked past. A shower of glitter fell from a Santa hat, sucked into the darkness behind the cheery red cloth. I thought there must be monsters there.
“You’re a weird one,” she said. “Are you going to do it?”
“Don’t lie. You know what.”
I stared at the fountain for a minute. The tinsel rustled. Glitter fell into the hands of monsters. Her bubblegum popped.
“Yeah,” I said. “I think I am. Are you going to tell anyone?”
“Who would I tell?”
She smiled. Even her teeth were bright. Clenched between that shining jaw, the blue-bright gum molded to shark-sharp teeth. I had the feeling that if I stole her gum and crushed it in my fingers, the form of her canine teeth would pierce my skin and the gum wouldn’t be blue anymore.
“You’re evil,” I said. “Snake. How should I do it?”
“It’s your deed. Do it how you want.”
So I stuffed my hand in my pocket to feel out the slim steel lighter and flicked it open. This was no peaceful chimney fire, no calm crackling flame. This fire hungered.
“Here goes,” I said, and tossed the lighter.
The red cloth caught first. Dry from storage, it gave itself to the fire in a single rush. The heat curled my hair into a wild frizz as the fire worked its way along the tinsel lines. Glitter fell in flaming motes, sparks of orange light, to be snuffed on the tile floor. Around us, the dull mall woke in a frenzy of screams as the jeans mothers hefted their children and sprinted for the exits. Children looked over their shoulders and gaped, delighting in the inferno. Santa smiled through the smoke.
Then, there! The red cloth fell in black shreds. Wind crept in through the open exits to playfully rouse the ashes in small eddies. Slowly, bit by bit, Adam’s hand stretched out to take the apple. Then was God revealed, an indistinct stone figure at the fountain’s lip where water gurgled happily once more. The snake coiled around the base and flicked its tongue at shredded fabric, smoldering contentedly among the ruins. The fire was satisfied.
Quiet washed over the scene. A cold hand descended on my shoulder. I looked up, way up, a man’s face towering over me. His kind eyes crinkled in concern. His hand was heavy.
“Do you need help, ma’am?”
I opened my mouth to answer but a boy’s laughter caught my attention. Turning, I watched him toss a handful of colorful confetti in the air. He danced as it fell, under Santa’s watchful guidance. The boy tripped on tinsel, his fall cradled by thick red cloth. By the time his mom arrived to scoop him free, glitter crusted thickly on his hair.
“I was just talking to someone—”
I looked around. The fountain was once more festooned for Christmas and the girl in boots, the girl with the gum, was nowhere.
My pocket was empty. The water murmured.
“I don’t know,” I said finally. “A stranger.”